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Supervisor Pressure On Nervous Worker Supports Distress Claim

By Michael Dayton

A worker who alleged that her boss knew about her mental disability — and took extra steps to pressure her on the job — may sue for employment discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress, a U.S. Middle District judge ruled April 10.

The case is Green v. John Chatillon & Sons (North Carolina Lawyers Weekly No. 7-03-0570, 10 pages).

U.S. Judge Carton Tilley’s ruling shows how the peculiar susceptibility doctrine can lower the bar for emotional distress claims. Under that doctrine, conduct that is not ordinarily considered outrageous can become so when an actor knows about the plaintiff’s susceptibility to emotional distress.

In a second holding, the court said the plaintiff’s failure to pay federal filing fees on time did not kill her claim. For statute of limitations purposes, the claim was filed when the clerk received it, Judge Tilley said.

The employer’s motion for judgment on the pleadings was denied. That allows the worker to go forward with an action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a federal claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act and a third action under the state Handicapped Persons Protection Act.

Winston-Salem lawyers David Smith and Linda Helms, who are representing the employer, declined to comment.

Facts

The plaintiff, who filed pro se, alleged that her employer discriminated against her because of her mental disorder and handicap.

According to the complaint, the worker suffers from anxiety, depression, panic disorder and high blood pressure. She was hospitalized in 1990 and twice in 1993. She also took a 30-day leave of absence in 1994 because of her disability, according to her complaint.

The plaintiff worked as an electronics inspector from 1986 until Sept. 22, 1995, when she said she was constructively fired. She alleged that her supervisor repeatedly harassed her, instructing co-workers to watch her and tell him when she went to the restroom or talked with other employees. The supervisor also warned her that if she got sick again he would not hold her job open, she alleged.

In May 1995, the supervisor issued a written warning to the plaintiff for taking long lunch breaks. The employee also said the supervisor argued with her for no reason and told her that people complained about her work.

The employee reported the supervisor’s conduct but no action was taken.

On Sept. 22, 1995, the employee and the supervisor argued. The employee alleged that the supervisor pulled at her while trying to wrest away some documents, yelled at her, and made her think he was going to strike her. She complained to the company president about the incident and resigned when no action was taken.

On Nov. 27, 1995, she filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC issued a right to sue letter on Dec. 11, 1995.

The plaintiff filed a complaint on March 18, 1996, with a motion to proceed in forma pauperis.

The action was dismissed without prejudice because the fees had not been paid. Before that action was dismissed, the worker filed a second complaint on April 5, 1996.

Rulings

The court treated the second complaint as an amendment to the original one and rejected the employer’s motion for a judgment on the pleadings.

* Timely filed. North Carolina’s Handicapped Persons Protection Act has a 180-day statute of limitations. That meant the woman had to file by March 20, 1996, or 180 days after she quit. The clerk’s office received the complaint on March 18, 1996 but did not stamp it until March 21.

The court ruled that the complaint was timely filed on March 18, when it was in the clerk’s actual possession.

“Because this district does not have a local rule specifically requiring the advance payment of fees, the decisions holding that the timely payment of filing fees is not a jurisdictional prerequisite to commencing an action are persuasive,” Judge Tilley wrote.

* Intentional infliction of emotional distress. Judge Tilley said the plaintiff alleged enough instances of outrageous conduct to support an emotional distress claim.

Key to that holding was the application of the peculiar susceptibility doctrine. Under Restatement 2d of Torts § 46, “The conduct may become heartless, flagrant, and outrageous when the actor proceeds in the face of such knowledge, where it would not be so if he did not know.”

The plaintiff said the supervisor knew of her handicap and mental condition yet took pains to increase her stress and discomfort on the job. She also alleged several instances of outrageous conduct:

* The supervisor told two other employees to report information about her breaks.

* The supervisor warned her that she would lose her job if she got sick again.

* She got a written warning for taking long breaks.

* Her supervisor argued with her for no reason.

* The supervisor refused to let the employee use vacation time to attend a relative’s funeral.

* The supervisor told the employer that other workers complained about her.

* The supervisor acted in a way that made the employee think he was going to hit her.

“Given her alleged mental disorder, plaintiff has pled sufficient facts to withstand a motion for judgment on the pleadings,” Judge Tilley said.


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